THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) – The International Criminal Court opened a week-long preliminary hearing Monday to decide whether evidence is strong enough to put a Malian man on trial for charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Timbuktu.
Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz appeared before the ICC, a United Nations court, where his defense attorney Melinda Taylor argued that the court’s prosecutor lacked sufficient evidence to charge Al Hassan. She also claimed he had been tortured while jailed in the western African nation.
Taylor ended her opening argument by requesting for a second time that Judge Marc Perrin de Brichambaut recuse himself from the case because of his membership in a French military think tank. The same request was rejected earlier this week.
“With so many judges at the ICC, it should be possible to have a panel without any allegation of impropriety,” Taylor said.
Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda argued that the defense had made a number of claims during opening remarks that the prosecution was not prepared to respond to. But Gilles Dutertre, senior trial lawyer for the prosecution, pressed on, contending there is ample evidence to pursue the charges against Al Hassan.
Dutertre also argued that the alleged torture suffered by Al Hassan would have happened before he was in ICC custody.
“This does not have any impact on the substance of his interviews. His rights were scrupulously observed,” he said.
The lawyer proposed that the court adjourn to address the issues raised by the defense. After a break, Bensouda returned to outline the charges against Al Hassan, including graphic depictions of abuse, torture and rape. She emphasized that the case was not targeting a specific religion or a system of law, just criminal acts.
In 2012, several groups in northern Mali, a landlocked country in western Africa, sought greater autonomy from the nation’s central government and began organizing a series of attacks against government targets in the region.
President Amadou Toumani Touré was ousted in a coup and the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State, a group formed by soldiers, took control of the country. Rebels in the northern areas then took control of a number of cities in the area, including Timbuktu.
The rebel groups were initially backed by the Islamist militant group Ansar Dine, but infighting soon began and control of large areas of northern Mali fell to other Islamist groups. They enforced strict religious rules, including banning music, forcing women to wear headscarves and destroying non-Muslim religious sites.
According to the charges against him, Al Hassan was a member of Ansar Dine and became the de facto leader of Timbuktu’s police force, who oversaw the enforcement of these laws.
He is accused of being responsible for torture, rape and sexual slavery of Timbuktu citizens between April 2012 and January 2013.
Al Hassan is one of the few defendants to be brought before the ICC on gender-related charges. Though the court has prosecuted a number of people who have also been accused of committing or allowing sexual violence, it is unusual for charges of sexual violence to be included and the ICC has never upheld such a conviction.
Earlier on Monday, the ICC announced its fourth conviction since its inception in 2002. Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including sexual slavery and rape. Should his conviction stand up on appeal, it will be the first time the court has had a successful conviction of a gender-related charge.
In 2007, Congolese militia leader Germain Katanga was charged with, among other crimes, sexual slavery and rape. However, he wasn’t convicted on those counts, only charges related to the murder of civilians. Another person from the Congolese conflict, former Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba, was also charged with rape and was convicted, but that conviction was overturned on appeal and Bemba was released.
Al Hassan is also only the second person to be charged with crimes relating to the conflict in Mali. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2016 for destroying religious monuments in Mali.
Local authorities had been holding Al Hassan for a year before they transferred him to the ICC in March 2018.
The preliminary hearing was originally scheduled for May 2019 but was delayed until July for procedural reasons. It will continue for the rest of this week.